Lionel Messi scores late goal to salvage Miami draw with LA Galaxy


Laurens impressed by Messi's ability to impact games late on at 36

Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens react to another moment of Lionel Messi magic as he earns Inter Miami a 1-1 draw with LA Galaxy.

On Sunday night, the LA Galaxy pulled off a feat few teams in MLS have been able to: They kept Lionel Messi largely quiet for most of the night, just not the whole night.

With the Galaxy looking to be on their way to a season-opening win over Inter Miami CF at a sold out Dignity Health Park in Carson, California, Messi popped up in second-half stoppage time to cancel out Dejan Joveljic's goal for the Galaxy and salvage a 1-1 draw for his team.

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On a night in which LA welcomed back one of its former stars in Miami co-owner David Beckham, the Galaxy were much less hospitable to the South Florida club's talisman, harrying Messi all over the pitch throughout the game and keeping him off the scoresheet until the game's dying minutes.

Inter Miami started with its famed quartet of former Barcelona players on the field -- Jordi Alba, Luis Suárez and Sergio Busquets alongside Messi -- but it was another product of the club's La Masia academy in Ricard Puig that stole the show in the first half. 

Puig, who joined the Galaxy in 2022, was everywhere in the opening 45 minutes, distributing the ball to teammates and forcing a goal-saving shot from Miami keeper Drake Callender as the home side had the better of the first-half chances.

The 24-year-old Puig also had a 13th minute penalty saved by Callender after Busquets pulled new Galaxy arrival Joseph Paintsil down from behind in the area and the referee awarded the Galaxy a spot kick.

Messi only had 27 touches in the first half -- his second-fewest touches in a first half since joining Inter Miami -- and the game went into the break tied 0-0.

"In the second half, the team started to get better," said Miami boss Gerardo Martino. "We began to control the game a little more, the ball moved more fluidly. It's true that in the first half, they did dominate [the game]. I think it was the period where Riqui Puig had the ball the most."

Paintsil continued to cause problems down the right wing as the second half began, and once again Miami had Callender to thank for keeping his team in the game with a pair of great saves before the 60-minute mark.

"It's something similar that happened in many games last year," Martino said of Callender. "He was decisive again, stopped the penalty, blocked some goal-scoring situations."

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring a goal for Inter Miami against the LA Galaxy.
Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring a goal for Inter Miami against the LA Galaxy.
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Miami's best chance of the game came in the 69th minute when a Messi free kick bounced off the wall and fell to the feet of Diego Gómez right in front of goal, but another new Galaxy arrival -- John McCarthy -- made a stellar diving stop to keep the game scoreless.

The Galaxy finally found a deserved goal in the 75th minute when Puig's shot from the top of the area -- at the end of yet another swift counter-attack -- was saved to the feet of Mark Delgado, who squared a pass to Joveljic to finish into an open net.

Delgado was sent off minutes later after receiving his second yellow card. Miami took full advantage as Messi picked up a loose ball and played a series of one-two passes with Alba before smashing a left-footed shot into the top of the net for his first goal of the 2024 MLS season.

"When he [Messi] and Alba connect like that, it's ridiculous," Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said after the match. "It's really, really difficult to defend and Alba is very good at finding Messi when he gets on the move like that. Unfortunately, he just slipped away from us for a split second and that became the difference"

However, Vanney was less enthusiastic about the second yellow shown to Delgado for what he labelled a "soft" foul on Busquets -- a call by a replacement referee on duty because of the ongoing lockout of MLS' regular group of officials.

"Really, really soft. I mean, really soft," Vanney said. "It's tough in a game like this, just where there's so many people here to watch the game and it's a big spectacle too. You gotta be careful with handing out soft yellows and it ultimately changes the game"

The stadium south of downtown Los Angeles was packed and roiling with excitement two hours before Messi's first game against the Galaxy, a five-time MLS champion franchise long known as the preferred destination for superstars of Europe looking for a new home after reaching their mid-30s.

Beckham, who catalyzed MLS' growth with his move to the Galaxy in 2007, has a statue outside the team's stadium. He's also a primary reason for Inter's ascent to the role long occupied by the Galaxy, which employed the likes of Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and Zlatan Ibrahimovic late in their careers.

The excitement around this match was a thrill for MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

"It sort of represents everything we wanted this sport to be, and have worked so hard for so many years," said Garber, who met with Beckham and Galaxy owner Phil Anschutz before the game. "Everybody is working hard to build on this momentum.

"To me, this is very much about where we were in 2007 and where we are today."

The Galaxy travel to San Jose for their next match, a California Classico against the Earthquakes on March 2, while Miami returns home to host intrastate rival Orlando City on the same day.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.